The Home Office has set a target date of implementing minimum unit pricing for alcohol by October 2014 in its Business Plan 2012 -2015. In the Alcohol Strategy, the Government states “We will introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol meaning that, for the first time ever in England and Wales, alcohol will not be allowed to be sold below a certain defined price”. Although the Strategy document itself does not propose a minimum unit price, the Prime Minister states in the introduction that a minimum price of 40p “could mean 50,000 fewer crimes and 900 fewer alcohol related deaths a year by the end of the decade”. This gives an indication of level a minimum price could be set at in England and Wales.

There is, of course, already a Scottish Parliament Bill, which received Royal Assent on 29 June 2012. This establishes a minimum price of 50p per unit. It is anticipated that implementation may start in April 2013, although the BBC reported in July that the Scotch Whisky Association has said that it will challenge the legislation and has reportedly lodged a formal complaint to the European Commission and will seek a judicial review of minimum unit pricing for alcohol in the Court of Session in Edinburgh.

The House of Commons Health Committee has considered written evidence submitted to them in relation to the Strategy of the Government for minimum pricing in England and Wales and published its Report of Session 2012-2013 in July. The Report notes that the “Committee welcomes the Government’s decision to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol”. However, the Report does make several important points in relation to the proposals:

  • The Office of Fair Trading has noted that there is a clear difference between a voluntary agreement between retailers to agree prices, which would almost certainly infringe the Competition Act and European competition law; and a proposal for a statutory minimum price unilaterally imposed by government. However, it has also pointed out that there may be constraints on minimum pricing legislation arising from wider European law, for example it may raise issues of compatibility with European free movement rules. Obviously, any legal action in relation to the Scottish Bill would clarify this.
  • The Scottish Parliament Bill provides that the ability to set a minimum unit price will expire after 6 years, unless Ministers specifically make an Order to continue it. Any such Order may only be made in the sixth year. The Committee recommends that there should be a similar ‘sunset clause’ on any provisions for setting a minimum unit price for alcohol in England and Wales.
  • The Government has presented little evidence about the specific effects anticipated from different levels of minimum price. The Report of the Committee urges the Government to establish direct links between specific alcohol products and specific alcohol-related harms; between different levels of minimum unit price and the resulting selling prices for the products which are linked to alcohol-related harms; and the likely effect of different levels of selling prices for those products on demand in the target households.
  • The debate so far has been restricted to whether the level of the minimum price should be set at 40, 45 or 50 pence. However, there needs to be a mechanism to monitor and adjust the level over time. The Committee suggests that the establishment of an advisory body to analyse evidence and make recommendations may be an appropriate mechanism. It is important to ensure that whatever method is chosen should be used when setting the initial level of price as well, to ensure that the price is evidence-based from the outset.
  • The Government Strategy states that they will consult on a proposed ban on multi-buy promotions of alcohol in shops and supermarkets. This ban would have effect so that multiple bottles or cans could not be sold cheaper than the total cost if each bottle or can was sold separately. Such a ban has been in force in Scotland since 1 October 2011. However, on the evidence presented, the Committee reports that it is not convinced that such a ban would be desirable or workable – it believes that such a proposal would create opportunities for retailers to find work-arounds which would “invite ridicule and bring the wider policy objective into disrepute”. It seems to have reached this conclusion on the basis of the Scottish experience, where multi-buys were replaced by legal price reduction promotions and online purchasing of alcohol from distribution centres outside of the Scottish jurisdiction was encouraged.

The Government Consultation programme for Autumn 2012 is likely to include further debate on minimum pricing and no doubt a watchful eye will be kept on any challenge to the Scottish legislation.